As important as the opening line may be to convincing someone to read your book, the closing line is the one that determines how well your story works—and whether or not your reader will find your story a satisfying experience. Last month, we talked about the 5 Elements of a Riveting First Line, and today we’re going to bring the discussion full circle by exploring the five elements that will help you craft the kind of closing line that caps your entire story and leaves readers with a feeling of unforgettable resonance.
Like first lines, last lines, in themselves, aren’t all that memorable. In fact, I’ll bet you this week’s serving of carrots that you can’t remember the closing lines of the last five books you enjoyed. The memorability of the lines themselves isn’t nearly as important as the memorability of the feeling with which they leave your readers. Let’s take a look at the closing lines of five of my favorite books:
“Hooker yet upon the Rappahannock,” he said. “We must have him across the Potomac, and we must ourselves invade Pennsylvania.”—The Long Roll by Mary Johnston
Vin closed her eyes, simply feeling the warmth of being held. And realized that was all she had ever really wanted.—Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
“Why, sir,” said the hall-porter, smiling at him, “never fret yourself about haste post-haste: here is Sir Joseph himself, coming up the steps, a-leaning on Colonel Warren’s arm.”—The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian
And after that it sometimes almost seemed as if there were fewer enemy planes in the skies.—After Dunkirk by Milena McGraw
He looked a long time.—Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
What is it about these lines that made these stories resonate with me? How did they embed these stories in my mind and help me carry them with me long after I closed the back covers? Let’s take a look at a couple of factors.
(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)
The end of the book marks the end (didn’t see that coming, did you?), even if it’s part of a series—as are all the books I’ve listed except After Dunkirk. The closing line should give readers a sense of finality, a sense that the main issues of the plot have been taken care of and that he can safely leave the characters without worrying that anything more momentous is going to strike. In the examples above, we find Mistborn’s main character discovering safety and love in a relationship, the thwarting of an enemy plot by the arrival of a spymaster in Reverse of the Medal, and the beginning of the end of the Battle of Britain in After Dunkirk.
At its heart, story is theme. We dress it up with plot and characters, but the theme is what the story is about. So it’s only appropriate we strike a final emotional note in our last sentence. Although not necessarily evident out of context, the books above use their final lines to reinforce their themes of war, love, trust, hope, and redemption.
The final line—and the lines building up to it—should provide the appropriate pacing to guide readers to an instinctual understanding of the coming end. Just as a song builds to a climax and then tapers into the subsequent notes to ease listeners back into silence, the end of a story must slow its pacing to ease readers out of the story back into their comfy La-Z-Boys. The lines listed above vary in length, but most of them are punchy sentences—which were preceded by longer, lyrical, sometimes almost dreamy paragraphs, which the authors used to ease back from the action of the story, so they could hammer home one final thought before releasing the reader.
Not all closing lines will feature the main character. Sometimes authors will utilize a “pulling back” of the camera to show the reader a broad view of the story, rather than a close up of the protagonist. However, most often, the closing line is the last chance to say goodbye to the characters for both the author and the reader. The Long Roll, Mistborn, and Ender’s Game all feature the protagonist in the final sentence. After Dunkirk, which is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, offers the main character’s final thoughts to the reader. And Reverse of the Medal’s comparatively abrupt ending features a line of dialogue that the reader already knows the main character is desperately awaiting.
Finally—and a bit contradictorily—the closing line should also indicate that the story isn’t over, that, in fact, the lives of the surviving main characters will continue long after the reader closes the back cover. In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold points out, “A great last line should leave your reader satisfied that you have said everything that needs to be said—and at the same time, it should stand as a launch pad for the reader’s imagination to leap off into its own flight of fantasy about what happens next.” The Long Roll leaves us looking into the future, toward the inevitable Battle of Gettysburg. Mistborn assures us the main character will be moving forward in a healthy relationship. Reverse of the Medal ties up its plot’s loose threads and sends us hurtling into the sequel. After Dunkirk’s weary hope promises the eventual end of war. And Ender’s Game’s nebulous (and brilliant) final line indicates both a present incompletion (and thus a sense of continuation) and an eventual finality at the end of the long search.
Your ending line will depend greatly on the story that precedes it: its tone, pacing, and the mood you want to strike with its ending. But if you can incorporate all or most of these elements into your final words, you just might be on your way to the kind of ending that grabs hold of readers and refuses to let them go.
Tell me your opinion: What’s your favorite closing line and why?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).